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Thoughts on the Welcome Return of Missy-Master

November 3, 2014


Ah, you have to pity Steven Moffat just a bit.  You come up with a delightful way of reintroducing a beloved villain (and there’s no other way of describing The Master) and you hope not too many people guess who’s coming for dinner.  Quite early in the season, a few people do guess, however and start filling the  blogosphere with “Missy = Mistress = Master” speculations.  This speculation soon hardens to orthodoxy and by Saturday night, the number of people actually surprised to see the Master back has shrunk to about zero.

Never mind, it’s great to see Missie-Master back and frustrating that we don’t have  gender neutral pronoun to celebrate him/her eloquently.  And, as many have pointed out, Missie-Master is a harbinger of a future female incarnation of the Doctor him/herself.

Matt Smith never met The Master.  Neither did William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton or Christopher Eccleston.  The Master’s strongest bond was with Jon Pertwee.  Indeed, the whole Pertwee era is better christened the Pertwee/Courtney/Delgado era – an ensemble effort about the adventures of a group of people on earth rather than a lonely wanderer in space.  From “Terror of the Autons” onward (and yes, Robert Holmes helped give us The Master along with the Autons – first seen in “Spearhead from Space”, just as he invented Sontarans, the name Gallifrey and much of Time Lord culture), The Master has pledged to kill The Doctor – but not too quickly or obviously.  A charming nemesis and a snappy dresser, The Master is in love with The Doctor.  The show took the cliche of the Bond villain who spends ages explaining his infernal schemes instead of just shooting Bond through the head as soon as he’s captured and turned that cliche into an extended relationship.  The two renegade time lords have more in common with each other than they have with anyone else in the universe.  Roger Delgado’s Master and Jon Pertwee’s Doctor would only half admit to themselves how much they would miss each other.  The death of Roger Delgado in a car crash in 1973 was key to Pertwee’s decision to leave the show a year later.

Incidentally, the idea of the name “The Master” apparently was intended as a sort of academic title.  If The Doctor has awarded himself a PhD, then the Master has been content with an MA.  All that is left is for some Oxford based super villain to combine the powers of both Doctor and Master threaten the universe under the title Mad Phil (MaDPhil).

The Master returned in 1976 in what is still to date his most terrifying form – a wizened skeletal gibbet corpse performed (from within layers and layers of nastiness) by Peter Pratt.  “The Deadly Assassin” was the defining adventure of my childhood, and I was more delighted and horrified by this story than by any other story before or since.  This Master would do anything to prolong his own life – the universe itself was but an energy source whose whole purpose was to extend The Master’s existence.   A version of this same Master (sadly turned down) appeared for Tom Baker’s penultimate adventure – ‘Keeper of Traken’ in which the walking corpse managed to transform into the trim, dapper and healthy looking Anthony Ainley.  “Keeper of Traken” stands, incidentally, as an interesting example of an adventure in which the bad guy pretty much gets everything he wanted.

I never really warmed to Anthony Ainley’s Master I’m afraid – a little too pantomimic for my taste.  Anthony Ainley popped in on Peter Davison on a regular basis and dropped in on Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy also.  Perhaps his best performance was his final one, the final “classic” Doctor Who – “Survival”, in which he was in the embarrassing position of having to try to stop himself turning into a cat.

Eric Roberts provided a rather satisfyingly nasty Doctor in the context of the lonely feature length Paul McGann adventure.  Not the most expressive of actors, Roberts was basically putting a rather more human face on the Peter Pratt character – someone who simply cannot accept death, and for whom time itself is relative to its instrumental value in prolonging The Master’s own ego.

It is unclear whether Derek Jacobi really counts as a Master, since he’s a human vehicle for the Master without any of the Master’s personality or intent.  He barely gets a chance to get all mastery before he turns into John Simm.  Simm’s Master is interesting because he lacks any concept of personal dignity, and therefore represents a decisive break with the Delgado-Ainley tradition.  Simm’s Master is like an evil version of Patrick Troughton – someone who really doesn’t care what people think of him so long as he gets the job done.

And now we come to Ms Gomez – the evil Mary Poppins singing Spoonful of Vinegar makes the Medicine Throw Up.   Missie is the person you meet when you die – which comes as a bit of a shock.  Not one of the Five People was told I was going to Meet in Heaven.  I don’t know whether the fresh note of gender indeterminacy she injects into Time Lord gender studies is worth the loss of homoerotic tension that her incarnation necessarily entails.  When she kisses the Doctor, she’s doing something that Delgago, Ainley, Roberts, Simm (but probably not Peter Pratt) had always wanted to do.  She renders something heteronormatively explicit that was always homoerotically implicit.

When Missie-Master regenerates back into male form, s/he won’t be able to forget that she’s kissed the Doctor.  Of course, the Doctor may be female by this point.  Will that makes things more awkward/exciting or less?  We shall see.


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One Comment
  1. weebluebirdie permalink

    Thanks for the potted history of the Master. I couldn’t watch Dr Who when I was younger because I was too easily scared. The 70’s were simpler times, although the Fear Factor was ever present in many aspects of life. I came to Dr Who when my Kid came of age, so we only know those with David Tennant onwards. I did like the pragmatic John Simm. I expect he’s too busy these days being an American in that unfathomable “Intruders”. I had to Google to find out what it’s all about. Strangely enough, there do seem to be some tenuous links between being a Doctor and an Intruder!

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